Call It the Duke Snider Problem

I’m a sucker for the second-best. Well, okay, so Duke Snider was more like the third-best outfielder in New York during the 1950s (as you may have heard), but you get the idea. I’ve never pretended to be a historian of baseball. I hardly remembered that Snider’s nickname was “The Silver Fox,” although that’s partly because it seems silly that someone who is already called “Duke” (itself a nickname given to him by either his uncle in recognition of young Edwin’s pride after his first day of school) needs a nickname. I suppose it’s not nearly as dumb as calling Jason Heyward the ‘The J-Hey Kid,’ a lame rip-off nickname made worse by the fact that Heyward’s middle name is incredibly awesome: Adenolith. Seriously, a player has a middle name that sounds like a cross between one of Godzilla’s foes and something out of H.P. Lovecraft, but the best (probably) some hack at an Atlanta newspaper and/or former Jeff Francoeur fan (side question: does Heyward fly Delta?) can do is “The J-Hey Kid?” Where was I? Oh, yeah, the late Duke Snider. As a quasi-sabermetric tribute to him, I propose renaming the “Willie Mays Problem” the “Duke Snider Problem.”

There are few things more irritating in historical baseball commentary than having to listen to some baby boomer hail back to an age when Baseball Was Pure And Better (when no one used amphetamines and those who used amphetamines certainly did not have their performance enhanced by them and the amount that amphetamines enhanced performance is definitely nothing compared to steroids), like, say, the 1950s in New York. However, one must admit that having three players like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider all in their primes at the same time in the same city is pretty incredible. You’ve got probably one of the top-five players of all time, one of the top 10, and then there’s Duke, who is probably “only” one of the top 100. There’s a separate “peak versus total overall value” issue lurking here, but I’ll leave it aside for now to simply note that to be Duke Snider in the 1950s was to be a little bit like Barry Windham in the 1980s: a magnificent peak that is sometimes forgotten because of its brevity and also because of proximity to Ric Flair and Rickey Steamboat (I’ll let you decide out who is who; on the basis of lifestyle alone Mantle = Flair). Association with a much-loved group (Boys of Summer = Four Horsemen) also tends to overshadow individual accomplishments.

If you haven’t heard all about Snider being great-but-overshadowed-by-his-contemporaries before yesterday, I’m sure you read all about it in the hours since the news of Snider’s passing. It really is hard to think of recent groups of great players at the same position all having their primes at the same time. The closest thing I can think of is Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Wade Boggs, arguably (Eddie Matthews has to be in the discussion, too) the three best third basemen of in major-league history playing at roughly the same time. Perhaps the closest thing in recent years was having Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, and Jim Thome all at first base (sort of). However, while all three are more than worthy of Hall of Fame induction, I don’t think any of the three would have a claim on the “greatest of all time.” The shortstop trio of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Nomar Garciaparra didn’t quite work out, did it (I count A-Rod as a shortstop)?

The presence of three great players at center field during those seasons brings to mind an important issue in sabermetrics: positional adjustments. Most baseball fans understand, at least intuitively, that given two players with the same offensive contribution, the one who plays the more difficult position is more valuable. The defensive spectrum (excluding the “special case” of catchers), from least to most difficult, is this:

DH–1B–LF–RF–3B–CF–2B–SS

We would assume that fewer and fewer players would be able to adequately play each position as we move rightward, which also shrinks the pool of hitters for each position as we go rightward, and thus, while “defensive responsibility” increases as we move right, “offensive responsibility” decreases. This is generally the case, so one might think that the way to do positional adjustments is to simply baseline a player’s offensive contributions against the average of the position he plays. Most of the time, that “works.” But not always. Compare these positional splits from 1954:

LF .270/.349/.443
CF .287/.361/.441
RF .275/.338/.415

This is not an isolated occurence, as was the case for much of the 1950s — center fielders hit as just about as well or sometimes better than left fielders. Does this mean that center fielders were just as easy to find as left fielders? Of course not: we can be confident that a center fielder would be even better in left, whereas players who have left field as their primary position would be much worse in center. If one simply adjusts for positional value by average offense at each position, for some eras it will look like center field is not any more valuable than left or right, and that simply defies baseball logic.

We know why this was the case for the 1950s, of course: a large proportion of good and great hitters in center field. Hence the name the “Willie Mays Problem.” Of course, Mays didn’t do it alone. Mickey Mantle did his part, as did Richie Ashburn, Larry Doby, and, of course, Duke Snider (among others). But we know that (generally speaking) the best defensive outfielder is going to get put in center field, even if he hits better than the left fielder. That is why Tom Tango suggests using runs (or wins) per playing-time-at-position to adjust for the relative value at positions, which is how positional adjustments are implemented in Fangraphs WAR. One can also adjust those values for era, as different kinds of players were put at the various positions in different eras.

This isn’t necessarily the final word on the topic. Colin Wyers has proposed an intriguing new variation on the “average offense at the position” approach that attempts to at least mitigate the Mays Problem (see also this discussion). This is an ongoing topic for research. In the meantime, and in the spirit of the day, I would humbly suggest that for all of Willie Mays’ greatness, he is duly recognized and memorialized. As long as Bob Costas is still broadcasting, no one is going to forget Mickey Mantle (and if there’s a “Mickey Mantle Problem” it has less to do with positional adjustments and more to do with Miguel Cabrera‘s current situation). As noted above, the relative offense of the outfield positions in the 1950s wasn’t accomplished by Mays alone, but by a whole group of players who excelled both with the bat and glove. In recognition of that fact, I propose that we re-christen it the Duke Snider Problem.




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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


32 Responses to “Call It the Duke Snider Problem”

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  1. odbsol says:

    Rickey Steamboat? You can do better than that. (cough) Hogan (cough)

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  2. Felix says:

    Duke Snider…The Silver Fox…is this where Duke Silver comes from?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=riyzYNcT1iY

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    • nosferatu says:

      You should know that yes, someone got your reference, and it’s awesome. And considering Ken Tremendous writes for that show, it’s entirely possible.

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  3. chris says:

    J-Hey kid is a sweet nickname. I think its supposed to be more of a tribute to the former great than passed off as orginial.

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    • SamW says:

      J-Hey Kid suffers by being based on the utterly banal (due to overuse) First Initial + First Syllable of Last Name nickname construction method that dominated from around 1998 to 2005 or so.

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    • sansho1 says:

      I don’t like “J-Hey Kid”, either. If he’s to be given a derivative nickname, it damn well better echo Aaron, not Mays. Hence, “Bad Henry County”, echoing his south metro Atlanta home. “County” for short.

      No, it’ll never catch on. But it’s mine, so I like it.

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  4. lester bangs says:

    You obviously get paid per parenthetical reference.

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  5. Cuban X Senators says:

    Barry Windham. Never heard of him. I thought I’d wandered into FanGraphs Germany, and he was always beaten out on the charts by Hasselhoff or something.

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  6. john says:

    Yeah, one shouldn’t have to go to Wikipedia to understand a baseball analogy. Who the f*** are Windham, Flair and Steamboat? You pretty much undermined whatever point you were trying to make with that one…….

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  7. guest says:

    I knew what he talking about. I don’t think it is a real stretch to expect a sports fan to know something about wrestling.

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  8. guest says:

    “was”

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  9. Biased Fan says:

    Actually – unfortunately I may add – Adenolith is not in fact Jason’s true middle name. It’s Alias. Much, much less exciting.
    (http://blogs.ajc.com/atlanta-braves-blog/2010/04/20/jason-a-heyward-the-a-is-for-alias/)

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  10. richwp01 says:

    I loved the wrestling reference. I thoguht it fit quite well. But I can understand where some Baseball fans want nothing to do with a “fake” sport like professional wrestling. I personally loved it, and “The only time this much havoc had been wreaked by this few a number of people, you need to go all the way back to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse!”

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  11. Duke Snider is always in the Fielder! I’m for him!

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  12. badenjr says:

    Maybe I don’t understand positional adjustments, but they seem sketchy to me. I don’t know the actual positional adjustments, but just suppose that a player is +5 runs on defense in CF, and the net positional adjustment between CF and LF is +10 runs. Does this mean that if the player was to play LF, he’d be +15 runs on defense? He’s still the same player, so his overall WAR should be the same. I think that’s the was we look at it.

    Is that really true though? Suppose you have two identical 5 WAR CFs. Both are +10 runs on defense. Player A is left-handed. Player B is right-handed. If you made the decision to move both players to SS, would you expect them both to still be 5 WAR players? I wouldn’t. In fact, knowing nothing else, I’d expect that Player B would then be the better player (although I wouldn’t know whether to expect him to be a better CF or SS) simply because he’s right-handed. I guess the argument is that positional scarcity dictates the positional adjustment, but that’s separate from the defensive contributions. The lefty would have trouble making all the same plays and his defensive runs would take a bigger hit than the righty. Makes perfectly good sense to me. It doesn’t seem to me that we use it that way though.

    It seems to me that we’re being too naive to think that you can simply take a +5 CF, move him to LF, and just assume he’ll become a +15 LF – but we assume that’s what will happen. There may be value in playing the more scarce position, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the same player can play the less scarce position better. Am I missing something?

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  13. Wobatus says:

    I bet boomers find it about as irritating as folks claiming epo, testosterone, hgh, etc. are equivalent to amphetamines. Different sport, I know, but Floyd Landis wasn’t taking greenies. I wonder why he chose other things to enhance his performance. Maybe he thought they were more likely to enhance his performance.

    I don’t think the game was more pure when I was younger. The turf was artificial, the newer stadiums often soulless and some players were coked up or swapping wives. But seriously, saying “hey, Mays took greenies” or whatever in response to anyone bringing up PEDs is like a kid saying “he pushed me first” when you catch him punching another kid.

    Now get off my lawn.

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  14. AA says:

    Some of the best pro wrestling references I’ve seen. But why all NWA/WCW? A little Randy Savage and Curt Hennig would be nice to work in.

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  15. twista says:

    There are few things more irritating in historical baseball commentary than having to listen to some newbie baseball writer/blogger aasume all players in the 50′s took greenies with no evidence presented.

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  17. Robert Dodge says:

    You should consider that Joe Dimaggio played for the Yankees and Pete Reiser played for the Dodgers overlapping some of the three players you mention. (I know that Dimaggio and Snider played in at least one World Series together, for example.) Reiser would probably be in the Hall of Fame if he hadn’t been injured. Dimaggio is certainly one of the best center fielders of all time. My only point is it’s even more awesome than the three greatest in New York at the same time. It’s also true that the other players you mention as the best at their position did not play in the same city. Berra and Campy give you two-thirds of another greatest of all time triangle, but I don’t even know who was the Giant’s catcher. I just looked it up, Wes Westrum. I don’t think he’s in the HOF.

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  18. Isaac says:

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